We won't know whether or not that will happen until players actually get their hands on the disc this fall, but judging by the feature list revealed this week at a Sony event in Los Angeles' Chinatown, Naughty Dog might just pull that off. The actual gameplay hasn't changed all that much -- the multiplayer still relies on the single-player campaign's shooting and cover mechanics. Outside of the game modes, however, the metagame is just plain incredible.
For one, characters are now fully customizable. Though you're still choosing from a basic hero or villain model, there are all sorts of clothes and accessories to equip, and colors can be set piece-by-piece to make a look that's truly yours. Weapons can be customized, not just cosmetically, but there are mods to add on as well, for things like faster reloading, more ammo, or "Callout," which "spots" shot enemies for other players to see. Emblems have more options than ever, and they show up all over the place, even posted in the levels themselves.
Customization is new to the series (though obviously not new to multiplayer games like this), so I asked game designer Robert Cogburn why Naughty Dog was doing this now. "It makes a far more interesting experience," he said. "The idea here is that we really want players to feel invested in their characters, and allowing customization is a good route to go for that." The options are many, but not completely limitless -- heroes and villians each get their own sets of clothing (so you can still easily identify each side on the maps), and Cogburn said Nathan Drake will still be recognizable, even if he's now wearing aviators. "We're not going to give Drake a top hat and a pink shirt, although some shirts do look good in pink -- just saying."
Elsewhere in the metagame, defeated players now drop treasures that can be collected for items and cash, and there are all sorts of new boosters -- some that can be bought right in the middle of a match to provide extra bonuses. Boosters also level up for more abilities, and there's a new feature called "Medal Kickbacks": Earning a certain amount of medals in a match gives you one-shot bonuses, like an RPG to wield or an instant respawn out of trouble. New types of missions are available as well, including "instant missions" (that give you a quick target to chase in, for example, the next 15 minutes) and friend missions that you can tackle with others.
Besides the usual game options (and some more unannounced modes Richmond hinted at), there are two new modes to play with. Free For All is one of the most requested, according to Naughty Dog, and that's in for the first time. Three Team Deathmatch pits three teams of two up against each other, which programmer Sandeep Shakar said is a concept borrowed from the single-player side of things. "How much of Uncharted 1 and 2 was Drake and Sully or Drake and Elena?" he asked. "It's two people going at it, taking that theory and putting it into multiplayer."
The two-player teams also make use of a new element called the Buddy System that Naughty Dog said is designed to build more tactical gameplay into the multiplayer. In team matches each player gets a buddy -- players can spawn on that buddy and see him or her on the map at all times. Working together earns extra cash, and in certain circumstances, players can even high five each other, which also grants an extra reward. Like Battlefield: Bad Company 2's Squad system, the mechanic gives a little more meaning to one of your teammates.
Naughty Dog is also building in some new mechanics to keep matches interesting. "Power Plays" are designed to keep things balanced. If one team in a match starts to pull ahead, the game will throw various benefits or curses out, like granting the losing team double damage or giving the winning team a VIP to protect. These aren't designed to be game breakers, and they weren't during our play session. Since most of the options grant the winning team a chance at a big reward and give the losers a nice chance to get back ahead, they serve their purpose of keeping matches competitive.
If there's a drawback to the multiplayer, it's that despite all of the new ways to earn cash and change the characters around, it doesn't play much differently than the previous game. If you're one of the few turned off by the cover system and combat in the previous titles, you'll find the same mechanics here. Naughty Dog has said that they learned a lot with the last game's balancing fixes, but Cogburn admitted that nothing is ever perfect. "I think with any online experience," he said, "you have that many people playing a game, it's going to evolve, and inevitably you'll find things that are wrong." So balance issues might be back again, especially with all of the new twists.
Naughty Dog has also announced significant social networking connections to the multiplayer, and it's promising even more announcements and reveals before the open beta for the game begins in early July. If everything it's promising all works as described, Naughty Dog might claim that "premier multiplayer" title after all.